THAM LUANG CAVE RESCUE: A PROUD MOMENT FOR DIVERS
On June 23, 2018, a group of young boys and their football coach went missing in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the Thai province of Chiang Rai. Seventeen days later, the boys were freed thanks to the immense effort of expert cave divers and many others around the world
Arguably, divers have never been at the forefront of a rescue mission of this magnitude before. This operation had a global audience gripped in suspense as international and Thai Navy Seal divers performed a search-and-rescue mission for the 12 missing boys and their football coach. With all 13 individuals safely evacuated from the cave, the hugely successful rescue mission has brought great attention to the diving industry – cave diving in particular.
The crisis saw divers from all over rallying together to offer their expertise. In particular, Ben Reymenants, owner and founder of Blue Label Diving, was one of the first divers to be called onto the scene. Ben recalls, A friend and technical diving colleague of mine asked if I would like to go over and assist, as the Thai Navy Seals needed the support and expertise on cave diving. When I saw the conditions on the first day, I had very little hope. Especially since there was no guarantee the boys were still alive. This cave is never dived as it is too dangerous, but since the Navy Seals went in the next day, I decided to go with them to do some damage control.
“What followed next was a series of horrific dives. On one occasion, I was out alone in zero visibility and got stuck in an outflowing restriction. Thankfully, I managed to pull myself out. I nearly gave up until suddenly, the rain stopped, and visibility cleared from one inch to one metre and the flow became manageable.”
The mission started with the tedious and dangerous process of braving the muddy, strong currents to find the boys. An exploration could last for hours, with heavy gear such as ropes and tanks being hauled along by the rescue divers. The aim was to lay lines that would lead to the boys.
“Now, the difficulty was finding the T-junction, a narrow area with a very sharp turn,” Ben explains. “I was 2.5 kilometres into the cave and found myself being sucked into a tiny hole, surrounded by mud. I couldn’t move nor could I see anything. My buddy, Maksym, had to pull me out, inch by inch, by my feet for 50 metres till we were back at the main junction. I then dropped down, and realised that there was clear water coming from underneath a ledge – that’s how we found the T-junction that led to the room where the boys were. Emotions were like a rollercoaster to say the least.”
Nine days into the rescue, on the morning of the day the boys and their coach were found, Denmark-born Ivan Karadzic, a technical diving instructor-trainer and co-owner of Koh Tao Divers, arrived to offer his support, along with a group of about 14 other divers from around Thailand.
“The team I was part of was tasked to find a good place inside the cave to make pit stops,” says Ivan. “The distance in and out of the cave is too far for divers to carry enough gas, so for divers who need to go all the way into the cave, they have to change their tanks. Every day, we brought in many, many tanks and placed them roughly halfway inside the cave so the divers going all the way in would have enough gas to breathe.”
“IT WAS ALMOST MIRACULOUS”
The extraction plan that ensued was a compilation of expert opinion and suggestions from everyone involved in the operation. Hundreds of different backup missions and plans were made for all sorts of foreseeable emergencies that might occur.
Ivan, who was present on the first day of extraction, remarks, “The plan itself was incredibly detailed, and everybody knew their exact role. During the rescue, there were 24 divers, and we all had different, very specialised jobs. Everything was like a perfectly-tuned clockwork. I think I speak for the entire team when I say that we were very surprised at how few mistakes were made, and how effectively the plan was executed; it was almost miraculous.”
Singaporean Douglas Yeo, dive instructor with Scuba Schools International (SSI) and Course Director at Diving Instructor World Association (DIWA), arrived on the last day of the extraction to offer help in the final stages of the operation. He recalls, When I arrived, there were still five more boys left to be rescued, and the rain was pouring down. There were 30 of us in chamber two, with the majority being former Navy Seal divers, a couple of foreign divers, and a doctor who was stationed to inspect the boys as they passed through.
“I remember one of the boys, an 11-year-old, who was just brought into chamber two. He was half awake, with his eyes open. I could tell he wanted to say something, but due to the sedation and harsh conditions, he was visibly weak and tired. We locked eyes, and in that moment I could sense the overwhelming appreciation he had. That was an emotional moment for me; I couldn’t help but imagine that being my son.”
One of the dangers of this mission was the possibility of the boys going into panic. Panic inside a cave leads to one result only: fatality. In no way could we take the risk of the boys going into panic, which was extremely likely considering that they have no formal training and the conditions we were diving in were absolutely terrible. Under the recommendation of Dr Richard Harris, the boys were given anti-anxiety medication, as it was the only way to safely extract them
Ivan Karadzic, rescue diver
TOP LEFT Ben entering sump one of Tham Luang caveTOP RIGHT Ben and Maksym Polejaka preparing to enter Tham Luang past sump three for a six-hour push. Eight hours later the boys were found
Cross-section of the cave taken from 1986 survey. Source: French Federation of Speloelogy, Rajabht Mahasaeakham University, BBC, Digitalay